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Did Quebec’s Election End the Student Movement?

The election divided students and left the movement with an uncertain future. But the real victory may be in what students learned about their own empowerment.

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While the movement had never explicitly rejected the political system, its chants had typically been thick with anti-capitalist rhetoric. Now, however, the movement was focusing on influencing, rather than critiquing or refusing that system.

Out of the Streets, Into the Hands of School Administrators

With the fight no longer based in the streets, the students were separated from the allies — parents, teachers, senior citizens — they had amassed over the months, and school administrators reasserted power over their charges.

In the heat of the strike, Charest had suspended the winter semester at 25 schools and set classes to resume in mid-August, first for CÉGEPs (junior colleges) and then universities. Early in the week of August 13, two influential CÉGEPs — de Saint-Laurent and du Vieux-Montréal — voted to continue striking and two opted to go back to school. But by mid-week, a half dozen other junior colleges decided to quit striking and it was clear the tide had turned. After the loss of support, students at the two striking CÉGEPs petitioned for a re-vote, and on August 17 they reversed their schools’ initial decisions, ending their strikes.

While CÉGEP students relented, they were not voting in a neutral context. Some administrations threatened arrest and failing grades for all students who voted to continue striking, citing Charest’s Law 12, which imposes heavy punishment for hindering access to any public institution. Schools also sent emails to students telling them to return to class without consulting or informing student associations. At CÉGEP de Lionel-Groulx, 11 teachers were threatened with firings for publishing an open letter condemning violence against students at the college. Many schools cut financial aid for the shortened fall semester, further dividing students.

A week later, Quebec’s universities faced similar conditions when voting on whether to return to class. Although about 35,000 students at L’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and Univerité de Montréal (UdeM) voted to keep striking, the administration at UdeM threatened F’s or incompletes for students that did not return to class, and called for additional police on campus, even standing outside of classrooms. On August 28, when students at UdeM picketed classes to enforce their strike, 10 were arrested.

Students at UQAM’s General Assembly Return to Class, as Politicians of a Different Sort

From the Quebec student movement’s earliest days, UQAM’s Law and Political Science faculty has served as a trendsetter for the movement, because, as UQAM Law student and CLASSE member Emilie Joly described it, the faculty is “not too radical or too wimpish.” On August 20, I sat in on the faculty’s General Assembly on whether to strike or return to school.

It was a passionate meeting, as students shouted about personal hardships (“You told us you would try to save the semester!” “I want to go back to school!), as well as strategy (“It’s going to be way harder to go back on strike! Once we start the semester, we’re not going to have time to mobilize!”) Many stressed the symbolism of ending Quebec’s longest-running student strike: after putting two years of their lives into the fight, they feared that folding now would give the impression they were scared of Law 12 and would prevent them from using the strike as a tool in the future.

For some, returning to class meant shutting the curtains on a world they very much hoped to live in, and turning back to the four dark walls of this one. As one law student put it, “We’ve created this space of direct democracy that’s so different than their representative democracy, and if we end the strike than we lose that space.”